Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is calling for the disendorsement of an opposition candidate, Mel Brough, after a recent fundraiser for his Liberal Party featured a Moroccan quail dish that was described on the menu as “Julia Gillard Kentucky fried quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.”
Imagine, just for a moment, raising a piece of pink steak into your mouth at a fancy fundraising dinner. Now, while you’re there, imagine that oozing gristle as David Cameron’s penis.
Women are prime ministers, secretaries of states, presidents, CEOs, etc., etc., etc. But still our bodies are considered prime targets for public consumption, in more than one sense of the word.
Introducing herself on Twitter, Hillary Clinton described herself as (after “Wife, mom, lawyer… FLOTUS, U.S. Senator, SecState…”) a “hair icon,” referencing a topic that has long been a fixation of commentary about her (perhaps even more than her presidential ambitions). A recent New York Times article about Susan Molinari, who served seven years in the House representing New York and is now a Washington lobbyist for Google, informed us not only about her being “brassy” and”well-connected,” but also about the color of her “Google-green” toenail polish.
It goes without saying that the Australian Liberal Party fundraiser menu is, as Gillard herself has said, “grossly offensive and sexist.” On Thursday, not only the prime minister’s body but the sexuality of her partner (and her own, by implication) were seized upon as “fair game.” During an interview, long-time radio host Howard Sattler repeatedly asked Gillard if her boyfriend, Tim Mathieson, is gay. As Ben Popjie asked in the Guardian, is this what political debate in Australia has descended to, “sniggering at women’s body parts and smirks about gay hairdressers?”
There’s no question that the fundraiser menu was repulsive and misogynistic. But it is not really that different from less overtly sexist, and seemingly more polite, comments about the appearance and clothes of women who are public figures. These recurring mentions of the bodies of women in positions of authority are yet another attempt to put us in our place. Women can be elected to the highest office but we still need to show that we haven’t lost any femininity, or humanity, in the process. The Washington Post proclaimed that Clinton in her initial Tweets “sounds human” — what a relief to know that!
The Liberal Party menu was similarly meant to remind Gillard of who she is — a woman. Conservatives have been accusing Gillard of stoking a “gender war” in the midst of Australia’s election season. Gillard has been speaking about what might happen to women’s rights, and in particular to access to abortion (which approximately one-third of Australian women undergo), should there be a Coalition government. In particular, she is being criticized for a speech in which she urged women not to vote for the Liberal Party, out of concern that women could be “banished from the centre of Australia’s political life” in a government in which the prime minister, the treasurer and many others are men in blue ties ”who [go] on holidays to be replaced” by other men in blue ties.
It is not that Gillard is playing some sort of “gender card.” When a political party takes the pathetic step of putting your genitalia on a fundraiser menu, it is all too clear that gender has been politicized. As Bronwen Clune writes in the Guardian, what Gillard must do — what a woman in the public eye must do, not that it is easy — is “to rise above the fray, not invoke it” and steer clear of identity politics.
Gillard said that “we don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better.” The fundraiser menu, the questions about her partner’s sexuality, the comments about Clinton’s and Molinari’s bodies — all of these show how abortion and also how women’s bodies are still considered topics for public consumption, in contrast to those of men. Would anyone bother to note the color of Eric Schmidt’s toenails?
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